SALT LAKE CITY — Juliet Doherty is no stranger to dance, musicals and the classic MGM film “An American in Paris.”
“I was called in to audition for the Broadway version (of 'American in Paris') when I was 15 by (choreographer) Christopher Wheeldon,” Doherty, a 20-year-old world-class ballerina based in New York City, recalled in a recent phone interview. “But I was 15, and I had braces. … This (production) came into my life at the right time, I think.”
Doherty is referring to her lead role as Lise Dassin in Hale Centre Theatre’s upcoming rendition of Broadway's “An American in Paris,” a musical following an American soldier who falls in love with a French dancer after World War II. The musical will play on Sandy's Centre Stage Theatre from Feb. 18-April 6.
“This is a unique show in terms of choreography because generally it takes me about 30 to 50 hours to set a musical,” said Jenny Barlow, associate director and choreographer of HCT's “An American in Paris.” “But because dance is such a large part of the language, it's taken 120 rehearsal hours to set this show — so it's really like the mammoth of all musicals in terms of dance.”
Incorporating multiple styles, including ballet, jazz and tap, HCT's production challenges its cast of exceptional dancers to master complex and varied choreography. But storytelling, Barlow said, ultimately drives the production forward.
“A musical director has the lyrics and the notes, and a director has the script, but a choreographer has the score,” Barlow said. “And so the choreographer’s job is always, No. 1, to keep the story going — from where the script left off until (the script) begins again. And so the challenging part, and the part that I get to create that no one dictates, is what that (in between) storyline is.”
Doherty, who has starred as a dancer in a few feature-length films, including “On Pointe,” “High Strung, Free Dance" and Netflix’s “Driven to Dance,” explained that combining elements of acting and dance to portray Lise was one of her favorite parts of the performance.
“The choreography parallels the acting because you have to be able to keep the story moving forward and show the arc of emotion through body language,” Doherty said. “I play Lise Dassin, a French girl who has been in hiding throughout the war. I really liked the complexity of the story and the emotional range of the character. … She’s this very closed-off person in the in the beginning, just because of what's been going on in her surroundings and having to be strong. But with the characters and opportunities that are brought into her life throughout the script, you get to see her open up and bloom.
“This is a character that has been part of my life for many years, and it's a dream-come-true to be able to play her onstage," she added.
Both Doherty and Barlow grew up watching the film — choreographer Barlow recalled watching "An American in Paris" whenever she flew on an airplane, in order to get “as familiar as possible” with the original production. Barlow and Doherty's love for the 1951 film, Doherty said, heavily influenced their methods while creating HCT's production.
“Because we were both so inspired by the original film, I think we tried to keep it very classic and truly original form,” Doherty recalled. “So I think that that is what's been different about this production — obviously, it has a modern influence. But it's not this New Age, really conceptual version. We tried to keep it very true and classic to the MGM feel with Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and the golden age of film.”
The original Gershwin score featured in the MGM production additionally guided Barlow’s creative process.
“I think the Gershwin music really speaks to the Hale audience. And I think the music is just so beautiful and emotional — it makes it such an emotional piece, which is really nice, because it's a post World War II story," Barlow said. "Having a show that’s so beautiful, from one of the darkest times in our history, is really lovely to listen to and to see. And just being able to see this level of ballet and having Juliet in the cast — we were really able to pull in some beautiful dancers for this show.”
Another extraordinary element that separates HCT's performance from other productions is Hale’s theater-in-the-round.
“Ballet is usually performed in on a Proscenium stage,” Barlow explained. “And to be able to see it performed in-the-round — I just die over it every time.”
Doherty agreed.Comment on this story
"I think it's really special to see dance performed in-the-round," she said. "I'm excited for Utah audiences to be able to see ballet performed in a way that's different from the norm. … It’s a story that has inspired me for years and years and really touched my life — I just can't wait to bring it to audiences in Utah.”
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre's "An American in Paris"
When: Feb. 18-April 6, dates and times vary
Where: HCT’s Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $44-$48 for adults, $20 for children ages 5-17
Note: No children under 5 admitted.